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Dec 27, 201208:00 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

Wines in Motion

betacam, stock.xchng, 2007

The headline can only be referring to one style of wine, my personal favorites (among many), Champagnes and Sparkling Wines.

These wines come from a variety of different places, are made in a variety of ways, use a variety of grape varietals and range from quite dry in style to very sweet. As you can see, broad categorization is simply not possible. Nor do you want to cubby-hole such a romantic, fascinating and desirable group.

Wines with bubbles fire the imagination, stir the soul, demand attention and in general make any occasion something very special. All that seeming hyperbole and, in my opinion, not an overstatement anywhere in sight.

We are in the middle of “bubbles” season here, with New Year’s Eve, Carnival, Super Bowl and then Mardi Gras, so let’s quickly cover a primer of what should be known:

  • The bubbles are the result of a secondary fermentation that is caused by the winemakers to occur with the introduction of special yeasts to the wines after the grapes have gone through their initial fermentation.
  • This secondary fermentation, which defines sparkling wines, can either be done in sizeable quantities in a large pressurized vat, known as the Charmat (or Bulk) Method, or can be accomplished in the very bottle you purchase, which since 2005 is labeled Méthode Traditionelle, formerly known, prior to 1994, as the methode champenoise or champagne method.
  • The sweetness level of the wine is determined at the very end of the process when similar aged wines are added to the bottle, along with some amount of sugar cane syrup. At this time, the wine is defined, from less to more sweetness, as Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry or Extra Sec, Dry or Sec, Demi-Sec, Sweet or Doux. Brut is the most common style of sparkling wine or Champagne produced.
  • All Champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are Champagnes. Only a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, within specified geographic areas and produced with defined methods and specific grape varietals, can be legally labeled Champagne. There are still a few American producers of sparkling wine that label their product American Champagne. They have been grandfathered, prior to 2006, into the international agreement defining Champagne and must use the term on the label in close conjunction with the place in which the beverage was produced, as in “California Champagne”. These wines are not welcome into the countries of the European Common Market (EU).
  • The Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Perignon, at the Abbey in Hautvilliers in the Champagne region of France, not only did not invent Champagne but was originally assigned by his superiors in the late 1600’s to rid the wine of the bubbles. The pressure of the gasses produced during the secondary fermentation was causing the bottles to explode, a great waste of wine and a danger to the monks working in the cellars. Dom Perignon began experimentation with both the wine and the production of the bottles. Through standardization of quality of yeast and sugar, as well as better defining the manufacturing of the bottles, he was able to improve the wine’s quality, assure consistency in the product, and reduce the loss of wine due to exploding bottles, not to mention the minimization of physical danger to fellow monks when working with such a volatile liquid and its package.
  • The reason for the development of the sparkling wine process in the first place is the fact that Champagne, the place, is one of the northernmost fine-grape growing regions in the world. Ripening of the fruit, and therefore achieving acceptable sugar levels to make fine wine, hardly ever occurs to an appreciable extent prior to the onset of rain and cold weather with the winter season. In order to produce a wine of desirable quality, sugar and additional yeast have to be added to the once-fermented still wine, and that causes the bubbles to form, resulting in commercially acceptable wine.
  • Champagne up to the middle of the 19th century was a red beverage. Even with Dom Perignon’s contributions to the manufacture of a sparkling wine, most of the wine from the Champagne region was still-wine up through the 1850’s, when the sparkling wines were discovered and enjoyed by Parisian café society. Paris is less than 80 miles from the Champagne region.  
  • Champagnes and sparkling wines are almost always blends of at least two grapes, often three, maybe more. Most of the wines of this type are offered in a non-vintage, or in terminology some winemakers have recently adopted, multi-vintage, format. That means the wines will feature a “house-style,” in bouquet and taste that is duplicated every time the wine is made. Each Champagne or sparkling wine house establishes what this means to them. While vintage-designations, i.e. stating the year of the wine grapes’ harvest, brings variations based on weather, length of time the fruit has been left hanging on the vine, etc., non-vintage (NV) wines are pretty much the same from one year to the next as that is the result the winemaker or the production label wishes to achieve. In Champagne, in order to achieve this goal, the winemaker and all assistants taste and evaluate on an almost daily basis from as many as 300 wines of different lots, different years, and different storage conditions, all pointed to delivering to you a consistent product every time.  
  • Sparkling wines, depending on their point of origin, often go by different names. For instance, when a sparkling comes from America, it is designated a…er…uh…sparkling wine. Clever and to the point, yes? Spanish sparkling wine is labeled cava, and in Germany, the wine is sekt. Italian sparkling wines are Prosecco, spumante, Lambrusco, Franciocorta or Asti, depending on their area of origin. Sparkling wines from France but not from Champagne are often designated cremant or mousseaux, among other regional designations. None of those names have anything to do with sweetness levels, but are label descriptors telling you that the wine has bubbles and where it is from.
  • Probably more than any other style of wine, Champagne and sparkling wine usually put forward a direct price/quality ratio correlation. You can go cheap and you will reap those “rewards.” That is not to suggest that you have to spend $50 and upwards to obtain something pleasant and good. You personally may not get that much pleasure from the beverage so why aim so high? But there is truth that in this category, you really do get what you pay for. You can find a decent cava or prosecco in the less than $12 range, and a good American sparkling wine under $25. Also if your intent is to use the wine in a cocktail, like a mimosa, why spend a bunch to toss the wine in with fruit juice?
  • To dispel a myth, Champagnes can age well. They actually react to aging like other wines, taking on subtle nuances and different characteristics that could make them exceedingly interesting and enjoyable. Champagnes are, however, particularly susceptible within difficult storage conditions, such as fluctuations of heat and cold, humidity levels, and exposure to light.
  • Keep in mind that Champagnes and sparkling wines do not go well into glasses that have soap residue. For personal use, rinse your glasses in hot, hot, hot water. No soap. Otherwise you will lose some of the bubbles and the wine will be “flat” right into your mouth.
  • While we are at the serving question, keep Champagne and sparkling wines cold. Very cold. And unlike still wines, wines with bubbles in open bottles do not keep well over any period of time. Once you open the bottle, it will be best to go ahead and finish it in one sitting. Darn! I hate when that happens.

Okay, class, any questions? Let the celebrations begin!

                       

                                    -30-

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Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

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In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.

 

Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and weekly columnist, Happy Hour, for www.MyNewOrleans.com; the Executive Editor and monthly features writer for Gulf Coast Wine + Dine Online; creator and editor of his own website, www.winetalknola.com; all in addition to his daily hosting duties on the radio program, The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every weekday, 3- 5 p.m, and streamed live on www.wgso.com.

 

Over the years, Tim has proved to be an informed interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.

 

Tim’s love of wine actually came about many years ago from his then wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.

 

They were instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major national and international well-regarded festival of its type. They both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now over twenty years old.

 

Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, Florida Wine Festival Competition, the State of Michigan Wine Competition, the U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.

 

Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.

 

Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.

 

It’s a good gig. 

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